Emilia Roig was born and raised in France to a Jewish-Algerian father and a Martinique mother, and currently resides in Berlin. They’ve been an advocate for intersectional social justice for over 10 years. Roig also just released a book called Why We Matter: The End of Oppression, published in German. She founded the Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ): a Berlin-based organization combatting intersecting forms of inequality and discrimination in Europe.
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What’s your family’s story of migration?
It’s really nice to have these kinds of questions. My mother would typically be referred to as an economic migrant, and I completely reject the differentiation between economic migrants and political refugees because any lack of means and poverty is inherently a political issue. So, all migrants are political migrants. My mom’s side of the family was really, really poor in Martinique in the 50s, and the kids started to have malnutrition-related diseases. So, my grandfather joined the French army because Martinique was a French colony. It actually still is today. He became a “French soldier” and went to war in Algeria, which is where the destinies of the two sides of my family become entangled. In 1962, my father left Algeria, officially as a political refugee, because all Jewish and settler French people needed to leave Algeria at the time. It was a very oppressive war, one marked by power imbalances and so, I don’t want to victimize the people who left. Of course, when you look back at individual family stories, it’s still traumatic. I just want to emphasize that I see this as a colonial war, and it was absolutely right that Algeria got independence, and that the French settlers who also inflicted a lot of violence on the Algerian population, left.
So, when my father left with his family, they all of a sudden became quite poor, because as white settlers, they automatically had a downward mobility in terms of social status. My grandfather couldn’t really live with the poverty, the subaltern status as a refugee coming from Algeria, so they moved back to the African continent, but this time to the Ivory Coast. When my father was in his 20s, he went to French Guyana, which is where he met my mother. They spent three years together in the Amazonian forest, in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful place without running water and electricity, and then relocated to France to start a family. And that is when I was born. Migration has been a very important part of my family’s history. My ancestors were enslaved people of Africa.
But I only realized I was French when I moved to London in 2003. People would ask me: “where are you from?” and I would start explaining my mother and father’s lineage with a thick French accent. They’d respond “oh! I thought you were French.” In France, saying “I’m French” had never been a satisfactory answer to the question “tu viens d’où?” (where are you from?) – what they really meant was, “why are you Black?”
Would you say that your family’s history of migration influenced your choice/need to become a writer and, in a sense, create an archive?
Absolutely. But — my book, Why We Matter: The End of Oppression, is not yet the book that I strive to write. I want to document everything, the history of my family, the history of migration, my ancestors being abducted from Africa, and also the crossed destinies that are so marked by French colonialism and imperialism. I wrote in my current book that I’m a pure product of French colonialism. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for French colonialism. I wouldn’t speak French if it wasn’t for French colonialism. So, creating an archive and wanting to write all that down, is a very pressing need that I have.
What was your process of becoming a writer?
I’ve always loved writing. It’s always been an activity that is really fulfilling for me. But, I wrote mostly in the academic context, which is a very oppressive sphere with very strict and biased standards and doesn’t leave much freedom in terms of what you can express. So, it was important for me to leave academia and write more freely. In doing so, I discovered that I just want to write more and more and more. But I also wanted to write non-fiction, so I had the need to really pick out quotes and citations, to be very clear about the sources from which I gather my information. I have 20 pages of annotations in my book. For the next book I write, I would like it to be a little freer, with fewer notes, and maybe closer to a novel. Even if it’s about my family’s history and based on a true story, I think I would want to do it in a novel-type form, to really allow for the complexity of who they are to come through.
In what ways does writing allow you to express yourself? Do you have a certain intention when you write?
I have the intention of first, freeing myself of everything that is within me. It’s the need to lay all that on paper. And the intention is also to use writing as a medium, to touch people and to establish connections. Books have done so much for me — they were extremely important in my political and spiritual awakening. I know that books are not necessarily accessible to all but I think they can be. When I come across people who tell me they don’t like to read, I think they feel that way because they haven’t found the right content that really touches them. That’s what I strive to create.
Tell me a bit about the book and its title. What are the main topics that you explore?
The book is titled Why We Matter: The End of Oppression, and for me, this felt really powerful. It was given to me by a friend of mine. What I like about it is that it’s very assertive, it’s not a question. Also the subtitle, “the end of oppression” — it’s something that’s going to happen, whether we want it to or not. We’re reaching another development of humanity, and I think oppression will not be part of it anymore. It’s going to take a while, and I probably won’t see it in my lifetime, but I think we’re on that path already.
In regards to the writing process, for me, it was important to make oppression relatable. It was important to illustrate the very concrete materializations of oppression. Because when we think about oppression, we tend to not look at it from a material point of view. I have eleven chapters in the book — you have: at home, at school and university, in the media, in the courtroom, at work, in the hospital, on the street, in women’s bodies, etc. And the last one is the end of oppression. For each of them, I give an illustration of what oppression looks like in these fields, and how it materializes. That whole process was so essential for me because it was very natural, very intuitive, and very organic. I was expecting, at some point, to have blocks and to not know what to write, but I decided to skip the chapters where I would have that, and instead only write when it’s really flowing from the heart.
From what it sounds like, the book seems to take an optimistic approach. A lot of people may argue that we could never rid ourselves of these oppressive systems, as they have created the world that we live in today. How would you say one can move towards a world free of those systemic, oppressive systems?
I would say I’m hopeful, not optimistic. And there’s a difference between being optimistic and being hopeful. Optimism is when you base yourself on very concrete facts — like when you’re thinking about the weather, you look and see that there are no clouds in the sky and think: “oh, I’m optimistic that the weather is going to be good today and tomorrow.” Being hopeful is when the sky is full of clouds, but you’re still hopeful that the sun will show up at some point. Hope is something that is completely independent of external circumstances. It’s something that you carry within you, like an outlook that you have about life. That’s why it’s not an optimistic book, it’s more a hopeful book. In order to dismantle the system, we first need to make the systems visible, and we’re far away from that because we still have a lot of people who deny their existence.
The conversation in many countries, including Germany, revolves around: Is it really a problem? Is there really racism? Do we still have a sexism problem? Or is it something that belongs to the past? What I wanted to do with this book is say: yes, absolutely, we do have a problem. And more importantly, we need to talk about it. I want to shift the conversation from: do we have a problem, to: what is the problem? And the next step will be to ask: how do we solve it?
In the last part of my book, I take a very spiritual approach, which to some people may seem surprising. But this approach is absolutely necessary for me. Because — first of all, it’s a decolonial approach to recover our spiritualities, which have been erased, ridiculed, and represented as irrational and inferior. I truly believe that’s the only way we can change. We can change all the laws, we can change the institutions, but if we don’t change ourselves, if we don’t change our own perceptions of who we are, our identities, and the hierarchies that shape us, then we’re not going to change anything. We need to really dig deep into who we are as people, what connects us, and how we define our self-worth. For me, all of these questions are covered by spirituality.
Would you say that this book is written for a certain audience? Or was it written for as many people as possible to relate to the concept of oppression?
No, the book was really written for everyone. It’s for everyone who is ready to listen, ready to heal, and ready to dismantle oppression. I had to really do this exercise while writing the book, to just silence the voices in my head that would tell me: no, you can’t say that, it’s gonna trigger too many people. I just allowed myself to think: well, then let them be triggered. I had to make sure that I wasn’t censoring myself, and at the end of it, I was sure that I said what I had to say. I’m not going to shy away from denouncing oppression because some people are going to be triggered. At the same time, it was important for me that oppressed people are seen and that they don’t feel like they’re reading a book for white people, or cis-gendered, heterosexual men. I wanted to write a book where everybody feels seen in their humanity, and at the same time, not minimizing oppression, not minimizing injustice. I hope I managed to do so.
Did you only learn German when you moved to Berlin? I’m wondering why you decided to write such a personal book in German?
Yes, I learned German 15 years ago. I had it in school, but my German was honestly nonexistent before moving to Berlin. In regards to the book – I basically had no choice. The publisher wanted a book in German, and I was like: okay, fine. I wasn’t really happy about it. But then it was a great process. I think it was meant to be because I felt freer to just say what I had to say about my family. I’m a bit nervous knowing that my father at some point is going to read the book, if it’s translated into French. I anticipate that he’ll take it all very personally and think that I painted a negative picture of him and his family. He will be very hurt. But you know, I didn’t want to silence myself, because it’s an important story to tell. And if he cannot understand that, then that’s truly a shame.
How do you feel living in Berlin? Is the city what you expected it to be?
I moved to Berlin after living in London for a year. My expectations were as low as they can get, since I didn’t enjoy my time in London, I thought Berlin would be the same, even worse. My only goal was to learn German and return to France as soon as I could. But against all odds, I fell in love with the city. Even though Berlin and I have had our ups and downs, I’ve been committed to this city since 2005. I complain a lot about the negative vibes that random people spread on the street, the unfriendliness, the racism, the lack of spontaneity, the fact that I constantly find myself in a sea of whiteness (although this is slowly changing), and the gray weather most of the year. But I love the freedom Berlin provides, I think this city helps me become who I really am. It allows me to cut ties with the very strong and rigid social expectations I set myself to conform to. Berlin is changing, like everything else always does, so I don’t want to fall into liberal conservatism, lamenting that Berlin isn’t what it used to be. I try to embrace the change, and if at some point the city doesn’t give me what I need, I might decide to move on.
How does it feel to speak so publicly through the written form, and be so exposed in regards to your own personal experiences and opinions?
It was very intuitive and natural for me to express myself in these ways because I was writing from the heart. I know that people were really surprised about how personal my book is. I just wish we could all be that personal because nothing we do or say is separated from our personal experiences. We need to be vulnerable. Sometimes it’s a bit cringy for me, especially when I’m doing readings. The first time I read about my queer awakening, it was a bit hard, but I don’t regret it. I just opened up, and I have nothing to hide. Maybe it can help other people. If I had read something like that at a time when I was really confused, I think it would have helped me.
When I was reading up on you, I noticed that you seem to be a great mix of all these different things. Would you argue that you are an advocate for mixedness in the same way that your book is intersectional?
Yeah, I would say so. I’ve always had the feeling that I never fit in anywhere, really. It started when I was a child — as a biracial kid. I remember meeting some friends of my parents, and thinking: oh my god, there are adults who are biracial! It stemmed from the fact that our families were always very divided — there was no harmony between my father’s family and my mother’s family. The fact that I’m half Jewish, but I wasn’t fully accepted by the Jewish community. I’m the middle child as well, so I have a big sister and a small sister. Now that I’m thinking about it, there are a lot of things where I’ve always felt in-between.
And then, of course, when living abroad I felt out of place as well. Even my family doesn’t understand certain parts of my life because I’ve been speaking in different languages for a very long time, ones they don’t understand. They only know me in French, and they don’t know any other language. For me, knowing many languages plays such a big role in my life. I love my family, and they love me, that’s without doubt, but I also feel like we have worlds between us. Also, the fact that I’m queer is a very important part of my identity. I really had to fight for it, and I feel so liberated now, being able to live that identity fully and completely unapologetically. But even within the queer community — I had this really difficult time where I was in a relationship with a man, but nevertheless, identified fully as queer. So, even then I was occupying that weird, in-between space. In regards to class, I’m very privileged today. I would even say, I’m upper-middle class. I support my mother financially. And the rest of my family is working class. So, it’s this thing of not coming from a generation of aristocratic people, you keep your family and class background with you.
I’d love to hear your opinion on the terms POC (people of color) and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color). Many have issues with the grouping of all the different experiences and identities into one word, lacking nuance and even perpetuating erasure. What are your thoughts on that?
There’s no perfect term to encompass the complexity of our experiences. We will never, ever find a term. And that’s something we need to accept, simply because it’s not possible. But, we can find words to articulate common experiences of oppression. That’s why I welcome the terms POC and BIPOC, because it can help people create some commonality and unity in the fight against racial oppression. Also in the queer community, the terms non-binary, trans, and the endless denomination of terms that can put words to our experiences — it’s good to develop them. We need them and it’s great that they keep evolving until everybody feels at home. As long as there is oppression, there will be no perfect word. A lot of the time, we question: what do we say? Do we say disabled people? People with disabilities? Do we say disable bodied? Do we say non-disabled? I always think: well, we can talk about it, but if we stay stuck on words, then we’re missing the point. I know the power of language and I recognize it, but I also know we need to move forward because we have words and we have sentences, and sentences can help us deconstruct and explain what words maybe cannot.